Book title: Twilight of the Exiles
Author: Cyprian Fernandes
Year of publication: 2021
Reviewed by: Dr Sultan Somjee
Large migrations of Asians, Europeans, Africans and others from eastern Africa began after independence in the 1960s followed by the rise of African nationalism. Then came Africanisation in Kenya, socialism in Tanzania (1968) and the expulsion order to Asians in Uganda (1978).
From their resettlements, mainly in the west and Australia, those with literary skills and resources began writing short articles about their migration experiences that later bloomed into award-winning fictions such as M.G. Vassanji’s The Gunny Sack (1989 ) and family biographies like the one by Neera Kapur Dromson’s From Jhelum to Tana (2007) and Yasmin Alibhai Brown’s No place like home (1995).
Among these are riveting personal accounts by Cyprian Fernandes (Yesterday in Paradise, 2016, Stars Next Door, 2017) and Braz Menezes (three-book Matata series, the first in 2012) writing from Australia and Canada. Their stories are pieces of a larger story of lives of one community, the Goan Africans, a minority within a minority, who played a significant but often overlooked part in the making of the Kenyan nation.
Think of the patriots like Pio Gama Pinto, lawyer J.M. Nazareth, Deputy Speaker of Parliament Fitz de Souza who were Goans. Cyprian Fernandes, himself a patriot and a committed journalist, had to flee into exile in 1974 because, while working for the Nation, what he came to know about the corruption and crimes of the ruling class, posed a danger to his life.
On receiving the book, I wondered why Fernandes titled his fourth book Twilight of the Exiles. The word exile in my mind brings images of political émigrés. According to Fernandes, anyone who has been forced to leave his or her country of birth must be considered an exile. This is the case he makes for his people, the Goans from eastern Africa living in the diaspora.
The reader’s éntre to this collection of biographical essays is via the life of Meldrita Laurente Viegas, once the Queen of Track and Field in Kenya. Meldrita dominated the women’s sprints for almost a decade and was decorated as the female Athlete of the Century by the Mombasa Goan Institute. She was also a spirited long jumper. Then come other interesting personalities whose stories are studded with events that would astonish a non ‘insider’ like me.
We lived in segregated communities as Africans, Europeans and Asians, and within these three race walls, we were further divided and subdivided by our cultural origins, creed and class. The walls kept us unaware of each other’s part in the making of Kenya.
Like, for example, I read about Johnny Lobo, a star soccer goalkeeper and a ferocious opening batsman receiving innumerable trophies. But I had known nothing about him. Mother Teresa appointed Johnny and his wife Moira her personal disciples in the service of the poor in Kenya. This service continues to this day through Paloma Gomes Fernandes and the Earth Angels.
Others in the galaxy of sportsmen were Blaise D’Cunha, alongside Dilip Sardesai of India, Antao D’Souza and Wallis Mathias of Pakistan were considered world class. D’Cunha was the Kenyan cricketer of his day. As a sports journalist, Fernandes had watched D’Cunha play and had got to know him as an unbeatable googly bowler. Blaise represented Kenya many times both at home and abroad.
It took Fernandes almost 40 years to find Blaise and get his story. As a child Blaise was struck by polio and had played with a limp. While in hospital in February 2021, Blaise would proudly show his pictures in the book to all the hospital staff and anyone who said hello to him.
The book is studded with photographs as with personal incidents. For example, Maureen D’Mello D’Souza of Pilerne speaks about a gruesome motor accident that killed her brother and his girlfriend and shook the Goan community. There is the story of Malachy Ferris an ‘Irish Goan’ by marriage to Margaret Machado. He loves everything Goan.
Once he tried to cook sorpotel (a popular Goan dish) for a New Year’s Eve dance in Sydney but had to be rescued from making a disaster. Malachy Ferris also stood for the president of the Moira Union in Sydney, but he was ‘not Goan enough’, writes Fernandes. Nevertheless, he plays a major role in the Goan Overseas Association of NSW.
Fernandes pays gentle tribute to Dr Manu D’Cruz, a well-known ENT (ear, nose and throat) consultant in Nairobi who passed away in December 2020. And to late Ray Batchelor who coached Seraphino Antao to sprint and win gold medals at the 1962 Commonwealth Games. Ray Batchelor was athletics coach to several Kenyan track stars and footballers.
Pioneering educator John Gomes, who received The Order of the Grand Warrior of Kenya, is also celebrated. Then there are others like Crescenti Fernandes, the insurance agent and confidential financial adviser to politicians, among whom was President Daniel arap Moi.
St Teresa’s school and church that were in Fernandes’ home parish weave fascinating lives of the icons of Eastleigh in this book of snippets from biographies. One such an icon is Steve Fernandes, the headmaster, who turned failing schools into success stories. The tale of Lewis and Antonette de Souza of Visit Africa Safaris is told by their daughter, Heather-Gail de Souza, who now runs the family business.
Twilight of the Exiles is Cyprian Fernandes’ fourth book that falls in the corpus of literature from the Kenyan diaspora in exile. The stories in the book lined with biographical sketches deepen our understanding of how ravages of nationalism, misrule and corruption affected a minority community.
Cyprian Fernandes was the first young Kenyan Chief Reporter at the Nation. You can read about him at www.headlinesofmylife.to.
Dr Somjee was the Head of Ethnography, National Museums of Kenya (1994-2000) and founder Community Peace Museums in Eastern Africa.